Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nothing Endures But Change - Hercules


An agricultural project in Clairton is coming to fruition courtesy of an Allegheny County grant. Allegheny Grows is an initiative that creates community and workforce development opportunities through urban farming and gardening. Clairton was one of two municipalities to be selected to participate in Allegheny Grows starting next year. The Unity Group, part of Clairton Chamber of Commerce, will manage the grant. They and the City and the city will work to provide fresh vegetables to community members, particularly seniors, as well as teach youth to become entrepreneurs. Allegheny Grows will offer Clairton and Natrona Heights two years of technical support and supplies. The first year includes intensive start-up services, such as site planning and community organizing, in addition to providing building and growing materials and technical assistance. The second year will include continuing support services, such as garden sustainability and maintenance training.

This got me to thinking. It was a little over 100 years ago that Clairton became a city. Prior to that Clairton, Coal Valley, Large, and the area was mostly farmland. There was very little industry… a glass plant, a baling wire company, and a few other small businesses. But Clairton was a happening place before the steel mills sprung up along the Monongahela River. There was a beautiful park on the riverbank where the last holdout, Clairton Works, continues to spew poison into the air making Clairton and Glassport’s air the fourth most polluted in the country, behind only Los Angeles and St. Louis.

The community has changed and evolved over the years. The well-to-do Blair family once owned property that overlooked the river. That property was eventually used to build low rent housing called Blair Heights. It was so mismanaged and such a magnet for crime that the entire project was eventually razed.

My grandparents got a glimpse of the city shortly after it had become incorporated. The park was gone, the mills were belching smoke, quencher, and the like, and the snow turned grey shortly after hitting the ground. Regardless of the color of new roof shingles, they were all black after the first year.

Fifty or so years after Clairton became an incorporated city I had the good fortune to see it during its growth years. I lived on St. Clair Avenue, which ended at State Street near the river. The other end was paved to Seventh Street (Rite Aid, nee Gumble’s Chevrolet). Beyond Seventh St. Clair was an ash road for three blocks then ended at Tenth Street. My parents used to tell me of the trolley that ran the length of St. Clair Avenue. A ride cost a nickel and on weekends, one nickel could be used to ride for an entire afternoon.

The last house on the street belonged to Bobo Benedetto who had two girls, Carol, my classmate, and Sassy whose real name was Frances, and one boy, Louie, who was my best friend. At the end of the street there was no bridge, only the woods and Old Man Jacobs Farm. The City Buildings were across from the football field. It was an idyllic setting. Most fathers were WW-II veterans who worked in the mill and most grandparents spoke a language other than English.

I learned about death one cold winter morning when my best friend was suddenly taken. Louie had come home from school with a headache and before the night was over he was gone. Brain tumor, I was told. Nobody’s fault. I was numb. I had never lost a family member; not a sibling or a parent or even a grandparent. Yet here I was barely a teen and my life had been changed dramatically. I could not have imagined how the community would change over the next half century.

By the time I graduated from Clairton High School the world was starting (or continuing) to change. Hippies, Vietnam, Haight-Ashbury, Flower Power, LSD, Marijuana, Woodstock… What had begun as a feel good era morphed into a scourge of drugs. Our community was not spared, although it would be a couple of decades until the combination of hopelessness, joblessness, and the death of the American steel industry merged to change the once prosperous community that many of us remember fondly.

A little over a year ago some 200 members of law enforcement culminated an ongoing investigation with the arrest of some 42 major drug dealers. It was a federal bust so those arrested did not go to county jail for a slap on the wrists but ended up doing hard time in federal prisons. One Clairton drug dealer who was busted got his drugs from a man in Duquesne who was supplied by a man in Penn Hills whose suppliers were from Texas and Georgia. It was a long and twisted web. The city is trying to heal but it is not an easy process.

The short-term answer is to save the children. The Bears football team focused plenty of positive attention on the city. Much of that focus has turned to positive consequences. Terrence Fort and begun to assemble a cadre of mentors to help CHS students, both athletes and non-athletes establish a sense of pride and self confidence that will help them pursue post-secondary education and break the cycle of poverty. The young people are the hope of the future.

Perhaps the answer will be to stretch back more than 100 years, when Clairton was mostly farmland and the city was a drawing card for Pittsburgh elite to come to the area and enjoy dancing, picnics, and amusement. The Allegheny Grows grant could be the start of something big. Perhaps it is time to either fix the emissions from the Coke Works (s USS Steel has promised, then started, then stopped, then started, then stopped…) or raze it in favor of a budding hospitality industry. Regardless of the direction the community takes, the new leaders – including those who have instilled long-lost pride in the community by their performance on the athletic field – are positioned to initiate the positive change that happens about every 100 years or so in Clairton.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Feels Like Home to Me,” with lyrics by Deryl Dodd

Dr. Forgot
email: drforgot@cox.net

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